King News by Moses Koenigsberg: Chapter 15 Part 3

 King News by Moses Koenigsberg

Published by F.A. Stokes Company, 1941

Chapter 15

  The Propaganda Plant (part 3)

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Halting bureaucratic encroachment on the freedom of the press and preventing the rape of the colored comic were exciting interludes between collisions with the legions of propaganda. My hardest fight was against American dupes of foreign espionage. It began with my investigation of the fake story of twenty-three mutilated children aboard a ship supposedly en route from a European port to Boston. Its culmination came a year after America’s entry into hostilities. It involved me in a predicament from which I was extricated by a federal-grand-jury report.

The persistent tales of atrocities perpetrated at the front on unnamed victims at unspecified places sustained my eagerness to ascertain and block the channels of their dissemination in America. Constant denunciation of the falsity of these yarns incurred growing resentment among my auditors. Most of them favored the oral orgy of horrors as a medium for whetting America’s appetite for war. Others suspected my motives. This controversial bitterness reached a climax at a patriotic rally. The meeting was held in the Friars Club. The “Monastery” halls had been opened for a gathering of volunteer salesmen of Liberty Bonds. Leo L. Redding, formerly managing editor of the New York Herald, presided. My attendance was accidental.

One of the speakers recounted a distressing circumstance of which he had learned only a few moments before. The female treasurer of the Seventy-seventh Street Theatre was summoned from her office that afternoon to meet a relative arriving from Europe. At the dock she found her sister on a stretcher. The stricken woman was returning from Red Cross service overseas. She was suffering the ravages of revolting torture. Her breasts had been hacked off. The outrage had been committed by German soldiers.

This was the quarry of a three years’ quest. I had stumbled on the first of the long series of fabrications with details sufficiently definite to check. The opportunity for an impressive refutation precipitated a miniature riot. My pretext for interrupting the session might have been more tactfully chosen. But tact was less desirable at the moment than emphasis. I protested against the use of the “Monastery” for the propagation of sinister, un-American influences by means of arrant falsehood.

Leo L. Redding was an energetic member of the American Protective League. That was the body of volunteers which earned the sanction of the United States Department of Justice for semi-official operation throughout the country as a counter-espionage corps. Redding was conscious of a distinctive brand of patriotism. He bore manfully the strain of a deportment cultivated to harmonize with his appearance. He behaved uniformly like the well-fed prelate for which he was commonly mistaken.

Redding rose valiantly to the defense of his chairmanship of the session in the Friars’ “Monastery.” He questioned both the propriety and the justice of my criticism. In the furious argument that followed, the anecdote of the Seventy-seventh Street Theatre treasurer was sidetracked by “gentlemen whose patriotism and good sense had been challenged.” They shifted the attack to my position. Did I deny that German soldiers were guilty of the inhumanities generally charged against them? “I believe that most of those stories are the products of German propaganda,” I answered. There was little friendliness for me in the uproar that followed. The din was dominated by a raucous noise too rhythmic in prolonged repetition to be ascribed to accident. It was that unmusical chorus then known as “the razz” and more popularly described later as “the Bronx cheer.” On that note, the meeting broke up in disorder.

At midnight, a messenger handed me a formal letter from Redding. A sense of fairness had impelled him to acquaint me with the course to which he was driven by his conscience. He was preparing a review of statements I had made publicly earlier in the evening. He hoped I could and would satisfy him that it was not his duty to present the report to the Department of Justice. For my convenience, he would defer further action for forty-eight hours. At first, my annoyance was matched by amusement. But reflection called up probabilities of grave embarrassments.

Providence interposed a dramatic coincidence to convert my discomfiture into triumph. Official confirmation was given to my three years’ suspicion of a conspiracy to confound American morale. It enabled me to turn Redding’s threat into a boomerang. Several excerpts from my reply follow:

Your notice that you intend to direct to the attention of the Department of Justice certain assertions which I made at the meeting that you conducted last night was evidently prompted by gross misconception of the facts. The need for exculpation falls on you, not me. . . .

It has been my conviction that confusion of the issues would not only detract from the high purposes for which we are fighting, but would also imperil the solidarity of our people. The resolution to secure our national safety must not be diverted to other objectives. The will for vengeance must not obscure the will to conquer. Placation of one might enfeeble the other.

On many occasions prior to last night I had heard stories of mutilated women and children brought here from Belgium. In the course of my regular duties, I investigated these reports with vigor and thoroughness. In every instance the yarn proved groundless. So much for my denunciation of the falsity of these fakes.

As for my charge that either the countenancing or the circulation of the rumors was un-American and unpatriotic—I here renew that charge. And I cite judicial approval of my accusation in the pronouncement of United States District Judge Augustus N. Hand on the findings of the United States Grand Jury for the Southern District of New York. I refer you to page 8 of the New York Times of this morning [May 10, 1918]. When you have studied that account of the proceedings in the United States District Court you should entertain no further doubt about the duty concerning which your letter indicated a desire to consult me.

Judge Hand had instructed the grand jurors “to inquire into an extensively organized ‘whispering propaganda’ that was working widespread mischief.” The most interesting witness examined was Dr. Emma B. Culbertson, senior surgeon of the New England College for Women and Children at Boston. She was questioned about a statement she had made openly during a visit to Vassar College. She admitted having said that “it was a matter of common knowledge that two hundred beds had been reserved in the Sloane Maternity Hospital in New York City for Red Cross nurses who were returning from France and expecting confinement.”

The total absence of a basis for this statement having been established, Doctor Culbertson’s innocence of any sinister design was inscribed in the jurors’ minutes. But the piece of gossip she retailed was used by the inquisitorial panel as a central illustration of its labors. Judge Hand dwelt on it in his comments. “Undoubtedly rumors of this kind emanated from sources engaged in deliberate and unfriendly propaganda,” he said, “the purpose being to create dissension among the people of America as well as to frighten women so that they will not enter the overseas nursing service.”

In his digest of the grand jury’s deliberations, the foreman, Dr. W. deS. Trenholm, reviewed bogus tales of inhumanity, attributing their circulation to Teutonic military agencies. . . .

“Another story, which is also German propaganda,” ran one passage, “involved the mutilation and outraging of two young Belgian women. This was also found to be false from beginning to end.”

It was at the instance of the United States government, Judge Hand announced, that this exposure of whispering propaganda was undertaken, in order “to make the falsity and viciousness a matter of court record.” Yet the weightiest implication of that record has been generally overlooked. Either it escaped the cognizance of historians of the period or it was elided in their preoccupation with theories of Allied ineptitude. Phenomena of a Teutonic conception of master strategy were mistaken for evidences of British stupidity. It seemed logical to assume the obtundity of English propagandists fabricating tales of German atrocities. It seemed illogical to conjecture the diabolism of the Germans themselves concocting such stories.

The chronicle of America’s introduction to schrecklichkeit as an instrument of military preparation is yet to be compiled in the amplitude that it deserves. That campaign of terrorism and intimidation registered one of the most signal blunders of German psychology. Its history, however, cannot be completed until, in the detachment of time, may be observed how fully it stenciled the pattern of events a quarter of a century later—in 1940-41.

Leo L. Redding was not the only member of the American Protective League who considered the advisability of urging the Department of Justice to take me in hand as a war-time precaution. My active support of the organization failed for a while to quell the suspicions of several of its over-zealous workers. One of the gravest allegations lodged against me was “the maintenance of secret relations with W. R. Hearst.” Confidential word of this damning charge came from Brett Page, make-up editor of the daily magazine page of Newspaper Feature Service. The accusation had been filed with the branch or committee of the American Protective League to which he belonged.

Page was an unusual person. Author of a voluminous and authoritative work on vaudeville, he preferred philosophy to the theatre. His personal loyalty was measureless. After peace was declared, Page ascertained and revealed to me the identity of my accuser. He was the operator of a string of theatres in Iowa. He nursed a grievance against me. I had refused to enter into a contract for a syndicate feature with his protégé, Byron R. Gay, a song writer. Gay was unaware of his sponsor’s effort at reprisal.

Despite its absurdity, the complaint nettled me. It was at the height of a country-wide series of attacks on Hearst. Denounced by countless enemies in print and speech as pro-German, he was again and again burned in effigy in various cities. Copies of his newspapers were gathered at public places in different states from time to time and piled on bonfires. His conspicuously effective championship of defense programs, especially the compulsory service law, did not abate the fury of his vilifiers.

With a pretense of whimsicality that did not hide a feeling of petulance, I told Hearst that “the American Protective League had me on the grill.” He laughed. “What is the matter?” he asked banteringly. “Can’t you stand an investigation?” Then, with a mischievous smile, he added, “I just love to be investigated.”

That was a boast without reservation. No man had a keener sense of publicity value than Hearst. He approved the judgment of the theatrical ham who rated “a bad notice better than no notice.” But unlike the actor, he could and did turn adverse mention to immediate account. He welcomed attack. It was a pretext for the expression of his greatest talent. No publicist of his generation surpassed him in polemic writing.

Hearst had been informed that a special staff of lawyers were regularly engaged in sedulous scrutiny of all of his newspapers and of the Chicago Tribune. They were working under the direction of the Attorney General of the United States, Thomas W. Gregory. They were looking for evidence of seditious utterance. The fact of these labors hung like a pall over Hearst’s chief lieutenants. The trepidation of his executive staff—often on the brink of anguish—continued until the closing months of the war, when the certainty of Allied success became too apparent for intelligent denial.

The menace of inimical action by governmental agencies left Hearst undaunted. He remained impervious to the violent strictures of a large section of the press. Only when convinced that there was imminent hazard of an explosion of public anger did he make any concessions to those of his advisers who assumed to caution him. Then he, himself, evolved and directed devices to retain the confidence of his followers and to allay hostile agitation. He strewed the columns and margins of his newspapers with copies of the American flag. At the same time, he multiplied the number—enlarging the space and quickening the pace —of editorial articles pronouncing the ultra-Americanism of his publications.

During the sixth month of America’s participation in the war, on October 17, 1917, the New York American, together with other Hearst morning papers, published an editorial leader under the heading, “Spies and Intrigues Have Done Germany as Much Harm as the Allies’ Armies.” It contained these paragraphs:

To be sure, the German government was a benevolent despotism inaugurating many of the popular benefits which our government and other democratic and semi-democratic governments have since adopted. . . .

Germany, deprived of its autocratic government and delivered over to the democratic rule of its people, would be just as little a menace to the peace and progress of the world as Russia is, since it has been democratized, and just as effective a force for progress and for the promotion and protection of the white man’s civilization as any other nation.

Satire attained a pinnacle in the 1941 recitation of these lines from the Hearst newspapers of 1917. There is grim comedy enough in recalling the mid-war investiture of the German nation with virtues rivaling those of our own people. But Hearst, himself, must smile at the laudatory phrases linking Russia with Germany. And the smile must grow to a laugh over the tribute to “just as effective a force” to preserve the white man’s culture “as any other nation.” Here the Muses conjure a scene in which Hearst belabors Hitler and Stalin with slapstick and bladder.

“Packed with dynamite,” the essay sent a tremor through the Hearst entourage. Two days later, the name of W. R. Hearst was substituted for that of S. S. Carvalho at the masthead of the New York American, as president of Star Company, the publishing corporation. It is doubtful that as many as one out of a hundred readers noted the change. Yet it masked a sensational crisis in the Hearst establishment. Carvalho, the general manager, had resigned. After striving faithfully for twenty years to serve as his employer’s alter ego, his liege homage was riven by the editorial of October 17th.

Carvalho’s resignation was due almost as much to the commentator as the commentary. The offender was Philip Francis. That firebrand had long before overtaxed the general manager’s sense of responsibility. This offense was the last straw. His aggressive partiality for the Germans was not the only irritant with which Francis besprinkled the Hearst staff. His Anglophobia was violent enough to suggest either a psychopathic case or an ulterior design. The latter theory was advanced in a sensational lawsuit in which he figured in the early ’20s.

A pretentious banquet was tendered Francis at the Astor Hotel on his retirement from the Hearst organization in December, 1921. Among the speakers were Samuel Untermyer, Amos Pinchot, United States Senators Norris of Nebraska, Reed of Missouri and France of Maryland, with several federal dignitaries. Robert F. Wagner, afterward United States Senator, Frank P. Walsh, Prof. Robert Morss Lovett, and Oswald Garrison Villard were listed as sponsors. Some months thereafter Francis appeared in a new role. He was president of the Sinaloa Exploration and Development Company. It owned mining claims and concessions in Mexico. Reportedly, these properties expressed the gratitude of President Obregon for writings by Francis published in the Hearst newspapers. The public bought more than $750,000 worth of the stock.

The Sinaloa Company produced little if any mineral, but lots of scandal. Paul Jones, who thitherto had been attorney for both Francis and the corporation, led a stockholders’ attack on the president. One of his public statements in March, 1924, showed that Francis continued to write for Hearst after his resignation. It asserted that “the game Francis is playing … is of a piece with his attempt last October to turn the resentment of Irish citizens of New York toward England to the account of the so-called non-partisan ticket … by alleging in an editorial which Francis wrote for the New York American that ‘the sale of glucose by Charles F. Murphy to England was for use in her warfare against the Irish in their spirited fight for liberty.’ . . . That very editorial is now the subject of a libel suit for $1,000,000 brought by Murphy against the Hearst newspapers. . . . Now finding that the rich mining properties represented to be worth $4,564,131 have shrunk in value to a few thousand dollars, a considerable number of shareholders declare themselves to be the victims of a skilful confidence game.”

In a suit filed later against Gertrude Corless and the Sinaloa Company by Annie O’Keefe, Alice Gregory and Loretta Shaughnessy, it was charged:

That as chief editorial writer for the New York American and other Hearst newspapers, Francis wrote a number of articles making out a strong case for the recognition of the Republic of Mexico by our government. During the same period he made out an equally strong case for the recognition of the Irish Republic by the government of the United States.

That his intended appeal to the citizens of Irish birth and ancestry for subscriptions to the stock of the defendant company might have a double-barreled effect, he appointed the defendant Corless his private secretary and put her in charge of the company’s office in New York. This, because the defendant, Corless, some time prior . . . headed a delegation of women to Washington in 1916 that paraded in front of the British Embassy with black flags. This performance resulted in her arrest with some of her associates. That arrest made her a “martyr” and established her popularity among the Irish in these parts. . . .

Circular letters were then sent out to the class of citizens referred to. They contained sketches of Francis’ life with a statement from him to prospective stockholders. He declared he was not satisfied with what he had done for the Irish in the columns of the New York American. He desired to serve them in a more practical way by giving them the first opportunity to invest their money in his company, which would bring them . . . fabulous profits. … His representations were believed largely because of the position he occupied with the Hearst organization.

. . . Probably a considerably greater amount of stock would have been sold if the postal authorities had not stepped in . . . and begun an investigation with a view to ascertaining whether the mails were used for fraudulent purposes. Just as the investigation was reaching its end . . . Francis went to his old home in Oakland, Cal., in October, 1924, and his death was reported on November 1, 1924.

On September 26, 1925, William P. Barry, as president, and James Drury, as secretary, issued a statement to the Sinaloa stockholders. “Testifying before the Chancellor of the State of Delaware on May 18, 1925,” it related, “Gertrude Corless swore that the number of shares owned by Francis was 300. . . . The assets [of the Francis estate] as shown by the report of the appraisers filed with the Clerk of the Superior Court of California, Alameda County, consisted of Certificate No. 2030 of the Sinaloa Exploration and Development Company for 24,098 shares. When was this Certificate No. 2030 issued to Philip Francis? It must have been after May 18, 1925, the date of Gertrude Corless’ testimony. This, therefore, brings up the question: is Philip Francis really dead?”

It would have been petty malice to extract satisfaction from the exposure of Francis’ shady operations as a stock promoter. It did justify my distrust of the man as a writer. But it also brought some pangs. It left an ugly blotch where a fine journalistic talent should have inscribed a shining mark. At the same time, it caused a disquieting doubt about W. R. Hearst’s judgment of aides in whom he reposed great confidence. All that would have been bad enough without the denouement that enveloped Philip Francis’ name in even a darker shadow.

Pursuing the rumor that he might still be alive, Francis’ career was traced from his infancy in New York to the mortuary records in California. There were several hazy, unconnected periods in a highly adventurous life, including a boyhood in Ohio with a father vaguely described as a minister, a printer’s job with admission to the bar in Michigan, the post of State Archeologist of Montana, a trip to Alaska during the gold rush as captain of a boat, with his wife, a job on United States Senator George R. Hearst’s San Francisco Examiner, acquaintance with Bret Harte and Ambrose Bierce, editorship of the Stockton (Cal.) Mail and finally the limelight decade from 1914 to 1924, already recounted. This biography fitted into the matrix of Francis’ personality. But it clashed with an inscription on his burial permit.

The Bureau of Vital Statistics of the California State Board of Health certified that Philip Francis was born a Diefendorf. Why he changed his name was never learned by the investigators. His widow, Mrs. Elizabeth Hanmore Francis, living at 3030 Bona Street, in Oakland, was repeatedly questioned. She repelled all inquiries. She vowed to “take the truth with her to the grave.”

There is a proud family of Diefendorfs in New York State. They maintain a family tree as a contribution to history. It shows that Sanders Diefendorf of Minton, N. Y., married Mary Esther Taylor of Cazenovia. Those were the parents of Philip Francis, according to the data supplied to the California State Board of Health by his widow. But no Diefendorf was found to shed any light on Francis’ hidden past. The mystery—hitherto unprinted— lapses to minor importance until its relationship to a large section of the reading public is considered.

What would have happened if, during the First World War, it was discovered that the most powerful editorials appearing in the American press in favor of Germany were written by a man who called himself Philip Francis but whose undisclosed name was Diefendorf? What would have been the effect of this revelation on the Hearst newspapers?

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